Bourdain; Losing My Imperfect Hero

Written By: Colin Offenbacker

I wish I could remember my first introduction to the pleasantly morose world of Tony Bourdain. The time, the place, and the specific piece of content that ultimately did me in remains as elusive a mystery as Percy Fawcett’s lost city of Z. Regardless of when the Bourdain gravitational well of travel, people, culture and food, first grabbed hold of my soul, it never the less ensnared me and has honestly changed my life for the better. Before I knew it, I found myself immersed in the lives of everyday people from exotic cultures in faraway lands. I was adrift in a sea of excellent literature from brilliant globally renown authors, utterly captivated by the various people, that I’d never before had the opportunity to understand or even comprehend. Through my television I was able to transport myself to the amazing and awe-inspiring destinations he visited. As I watched him dig into a bowl of hot and spicy noodles after a night out on the town in Vietnam with friends old and new, the steam from the bowl would waft out from my TV screen and into my imagination. His television shows were only one aspect of his work and life. Anthony Bourdain’s entire body of work can never truly be measured in any traditional or empirical manner. His influence affected and continues to affect people on a much deeper level. Coming from someone like myself who is anything but religious in a traditional sense or even a spiritual sense, the only word that seems to bring clarity to the level of influences he touches is soul. He spoke and continues to speak to the soul of our limited human experience.

Upon reflection, one of the most influential aspects of his work is his literary contributions. Tony was only one of the most accomplished travelers of our time. To borrow a term from one of my favorite films, the 1942 classic “Casablanca” I’d classify Bourdain as a true citizen of the world, although he was much more than that. I would equate his big break onto the world stage with the release and widespread adoption of his book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”. I originally come from a culinary background. As drastically different and wholly divorced from my own experiences in the culinary world were from his own, this background provided a receptive place for his written words to embed themselves in my soul. From “Kitchen Confidential” and “Medium Raw”, to “Hungry Ghosts”, Bourdain’s personal contribution to the written word extends past his own writings. Through watching his shows and reading his books I was introduced to a whole world of renown but underappreciated literary figures. Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Paul Bowles, William Burroughs and Antonio Lobo Antunes to name just a few of the literary masters introduced to me by Mr. Bourdain through his own work. Today I proudly display his work right alongside them, right where he belongs.

There’s no argument that his various travel shows, A cook’s Tour, No Reservations and his latest show on CNN Parts Unknown, catapulted him to the top of the entertainment world. Simply labeling these projects “travel shows” do them a great injustice. There is a rather stark evolution throughout the life span of these shows, visible not only in the content itself but in the man himself. A huge portion of his life is documented, and as the viewer you aren’t simply getting a fluffy piece about the local tourist attractions with some overly excited host looking to exploit the environment, you’re getting a real-life look into the lives of the very real people who live and work in these places. You get to accompany Bourdain along a “Journey Without Maps” while he experiences the culture and attempts to grasp what it’s really like to be in a different place with different people who live parallel though strangely similar lives, grappling with the human condition.

I’ve been affected by the way he travels more than where he’s traveled. Though I would like to take full credit for my own “travel style”, I know however that it has been shaped around the way Tony portrays his experiences. Whether I’m in Ecuador, Sweden, Russia or different regions of the United States, one rule remains a constant; “Don’t be that guy, don’t be a tourist”. What I really mean by that is trying to blend in and experience the culture as the native people do. When my wife and I went to Ecuador to visit her family for the first time, though I’m a 6’4” tall white guy in a country in which the average male height is a little over 5’7”, I lived as they did, ate what they ate and went to places that they normally go to. I did some research before I traveled and made sure I wouldn’t be making any social Faux Pas by walking into a church older than my own country in cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. That is just a single example, but I think it gets the point across. I’ll instill that belief and those values in my children and with any luck they’ll carry that forth in their own children. I’ll be eternally grateful for all that Bourdain has instilled within me.

I honestly believe I could go on and on at full book length describing what Anthony Bourdain meant to me and how he has positively affected the world and humanity as a whole but I’ll reserve that honor for a better writer than I. For now I’ll have to accept that all I can provide is a quick posthumous thank you to a personal hero of mine. A thank you that does little to no justice to him. As imperfect a role model/husband/father and man as he might have been, he is still one of my heroes and will be greatly missed.

My heart goes out to his family, his friends and all those whom were lucky enough to actually have known him. The man, the legend himself, Anthony Bourdain.